Enough Rope, with Andrew Denton: Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy's first novel, the Booker Prize-winning 'God of Small Things', sold six million copies internationally when it was published in 1997. Since then, she's put fiction aside to deal with more pressing issues, giving voice to ordinary people squeezed by the march of globalisation. For her views, she's been criticised and even sentenced to jail, but as often happens with people who question the status quo, the more she's been shouted down, the louder her voice has become. She'll be in Australia next month to accept the Sydney Peace Prize. Tonight, we speak to her from her home in New Delhi. Please welcome Arundhati Roy.

ANDREW DENTON: Arundhati, welcome to the show. You say that there's a wilderness of mind in India that we have lost. What is it that we don't see in the West that you can see so clearly from India?

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, I think, basically, the fact that, you know...in the fact that, say, the media or any kind of state institutions haven't managed to completely penetrate the countryside and the underbelly of the city. Because people are so poor, they can't really afford to buy the things that globalisation - corporate globalisation - is pushing at them, including the water and including the electricity. So what that leaves is a kind of un-barcoded wilderness, you know? So you have a situation...

Like, say you take the case of a place like Italy, where the prime minister sort of controls 90 per cent of the television viewer-ship, he controls the newspapers, many big newspapers, he controls publishing houses as well as bookstore chains. You have a process of indoctrination that people are hardly aware of the fact that they are being indoctrinated. But here, because of the poverty and the anarchy and the...you know, the religious anarchy as well, you just have a situation where even the boot-stamping fascists can't all agree about one thing.

ANDREW DENTON: A world without barcodes. That's very dangerous talk, Arundhati, and I would ask you not to repeat that, thank you very much.


ANDREW DENTON: When you were young, you grew up in Kerala, in the south of India, and to quote you, you were the worst thing you could be, which was "thin, black and clever," and you described growing up in a village as a nightmare. Why was that?

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, because, I mean, that was also partly because I was, you know...my mother was married... She came from a very traditional community, called the Syrian Christians, who believed that, you know, they were converted to Christianity when Saint Thomas came to Kerala in the first century, and they are a very small, closed, parochial community, and she then married outside the community. She married a Bengali Hindu, and then, worse, divorced him and came back to live in the village and was just completely unaccepted. And so my brother and I grew up in an atmosphere of, you know, being on the edge of this very parochial community, which was never going to offer us the assurances that it offered, you know, other middle-class children. So in a way, now, obviously, in retrospect, it was great, but at the time, one only dreamt of escape - you know, leaving somehow and not having to sort of conform to the expectations of those people, and particularly those men.

ANDREW DENTON: When you left home at 16, what was in your heart?

ARUNDHATI ROY: The main thing was I needed, very desperately, to, you know, find a foothold which would make me independent, because for a whole lot of reasons, I was very terrified and very vulnerable at that age, because, you know, of a lot of things. And so, when I came to Delhi, the first year in the school of architecture changed my life, because I suddenly realised that I could...you know, I could survive on my own. I didn't need the people there at all, and it was just such a huge weight off my shoulders.

ANDREW DENTON: You did many things over the next 20 years - architecture, as you said. You were you were a hippie in Goa, you foraged for beer bottles in the rubbish tips of New Delhi, you wrote for television. When the Booker Prize happened in 1997, did your world change completely?

ARUNDHATI ROY: The Booker wasn't the big thing, you know? The thing was when I finished writing 'The God of Small Things', and when I finished writing it...and suddenly, I didn't know what it was, because I'd worked for five years not really, you know, talking about it to anyone. So when I finished it, I didn't know whether it would even be comprehensible to anyone but myself. And when it happened that, you know, suddenly publishers around the world wanted to publish it, and when that book was published, when I saw copies of it, I think that did do something very beautiful and important for me. It wasn't like winning a sporting event, you know, where you just have the pure joy of winning that. It was mixed with so much other stuff, so I don't know. I mean, I'm ambiguous about it still.

ANDREW DENTON: One of the things about winning the Booker, of course is - and all those sales - is suddenly, to use your words, you have money spewing at you, and you decided to give a lot of that away. Now, that probably is a lot harder to do than it is to say. What are the mechanics of actually giving money away?

ARUNDHATI ROY: The fact is that it's a very delicate operation to give money away, 'cause you can also destroy initiative. It's like the World Bank can come in and throw money at some, you know, joint forest management program, not realising that it's just been siphoned off by the corrupt...you know, the big fish that come to feed at the source. So it's a very, very, very delicate operation, and one that you have to do politically and carefully.

The first thing is that I understand that for one person to be rewarded with money in the way that I am, for whatever it is that I've done, whether it's a book or whatever it is, it's somehow a manifestation of there being something very wrong with the world. You can't, you know...nobody deserves to have so much when so many have so little. So the first thing is to see it as a political thing. You know, not as your money, but as something that is there as a political thing, and then see how to use it, you know, carefully and slowly and quietly, without making a song and dance about it. And I have seen it damage, you know, movements and people and initiatives. So you've just got to be very careful about it. I think that's the fundamental thing. And also, always at the scale of operations in that place, you know? So if you go somewhere and you see that, OK, look, this is a great group of people doing wonderful work. It would be great for them to have a computer or it would be great if they could just pay their activists a little bit of money every month just to keep, you know, ends...to make ends meet, and things like that.

So, you know, A, you can't do it alone - you've got to do it with a group of people and you have to do it with people who have the same political commitment and understanding. And you have to also understand that to receive for people is as careful a thing as to give.

ANDREW DENTON: One of the groups you became very involved with, they were protesting a big dam building project in the Narmada Valley. What was it that drew you to this?

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, basically, what was happening was here you had a river called the Narmada in central India, and a project called the Narmada Valley Development Program, where they were thinking of building something like 3,500 dams on the river, of which four of these dams were going to be mega-huge dams, which would displace between them, you know, hundreds of thousands of people, submerge hundreds of thousands of acres of prime forest, in the name of giving irrigation and supplying electricity and water to various, you know, parts of India.

And so it was the big question - is this the model of development that is ecologically, economically and politically the right thing to do or not? And the story that emerged is hard for me to just, you know, explain it on TV, but it was absolutely astounding and shocking to me that, you know, in the face of the resistance of people who were being displaced, the least the establishment could have done was to come up with some studies that said, "Look, here it is. Here's what we're saying," you know? But no - nothing. No figures, no studies, just these empty promises which were broken time after time.

Big dams are a way of centralising resources and siphoning them off.

ANDREW DENTON: Even though the battle for the main dam - I think it was called the Sardar Sarovar dam - was lost, you said this gave you real pride in your people and your land. Why was that?

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, you know, how do you define a battle that's lost and a battle that's won? It's a very, very complicated thing. Because if you come to India and you see the way ordinary people in villages, Adivasi people, Dalits, are terrorised by the state, by the police, by the establishment, and you go into a place like the Narmada Valley where the people have been fighting for their rights for years, even though the dam is being built, even though the up-rootment is happening in a completely brutal way with the institutional support of the courts, of the police, of the government, you still see that what has been won is a tremendous spirit among the people, you know? They're not broken. They're just being born, in a way.

You see, all across India now, violent armed struggles are taking over, you know, and this is what I think is a fundamental question raised by the anti-dam resistance, which is not just about dams but about the notion of non-violence itself.

And the onus, eventually, is on the states. If a state refuses to acknowledge, or even be open to being moved by, reasoned non-violent resistance, then really it can't claim to be against terrorism because it's opening the doors to armed struggle in this way. So I think this is a question that lies at the heart of the world today. Very, very, very, very important for all of us, you know?

I mean, it's... And it's not only in India, you know? You obviously are so fully aware of the same thing happening in Australia with the Aboriginal people - the ways in which they're being brutalised and marginalised and really snuffed out. These are questions we must ask ourselves. You know, on which side will we fight? Whether we win or lose is a separate matter. On which side will we fight? On whose side will we fight?

ANDREW DENTON: It is, as you say, an ongoing battle and it certainly was for you personally. As a result of protesting the Supreme Court decision that allowed that large dam to be built, you went through a year-long court case and were eventually found guilty of contempt. You served a day and a night in jail, paid the fine and got out. Did you consider serving the three-month sentence to make your point?

ARUNDHATI ROY: Just to give you a short background of what that was about. There's a law called the contempt of court law in India. Part of it is just about not carrying out Supreme Court orders, which is fine, but the other section of it has to do with not being allowed to criticise the court or to criticise any judge. This means that even if you had documentary evidence of, say, a judge being corrupt, you cannot bring it to court because it undermines the dignity of the court and therefore it's contempt of court, in which case, in this case, even truth is not a defence.

So judges can do anything, but they are above the law in some way. And my point was, how can you have such an undemocratic institution in a democracy?

When the people of the valley came to protest the decision of the Supreme Court outside the gates of the Supreme Court, basically a group of five thugs, lawyers, filed a police case against me and a couple of others saying we had tried to kill them outside the gates of the court in full view of 300 policemen. The policemen didn't accept the FIR, the first information report, because they knew it was a lie, but the Supreme Court of India accepted it and asked me to appear as a criminal, you know, in front of the court.

So I did, and I didn't have a lawyer, and I said, "Look, I think that this is absolutely unacceptable," you know? And of course that...they charged me with further contempt and then, you know, asked me to apologise, which I wouldn't do.

And so they sentenced me, after a year-long trial, which meant...which was a message to other journalists and writers that, "If you mess with us you're going to have to hire criminal lawyers, you're going to have to face a criminal trial, you might lose your job and, you know, God knows how long you'll be sentenced for."

ANDREW DENTON: I don't wish to be critical, but I would point out that they're not just a court, Arundhati, they're a Supreme Court and maybe you need to show them more respect because they have the word 'Supreme' in front there.

ARUNDHATI ROY: (Laughs) They had...they used to throw my book, you know, from one judge to the other and refer to me as "that woman", so I used to refer to myself respectfully as "the hooker that won the Booker".

And then, when it came out, when the time came, you know, to sentence me, they realised that they were in a bit of a bind because, you know, to put, you know, a known writer into prison would be bad publicity and yet they...you know, they couldn't really back off. So they started shouting, saying, "But she's not behaving like a reasonable man." So from being "the hooker that won the Booker", I became "not a reasonable man". But anyway...

ANDREW DENTON: You're particularly sacrilegious about the holy trinity - the World Trade Organisation, International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Why don't you believe in them?

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, they're not...they're not, you know, sort of religious institutions and they are...

ANDREW DENTON: I beg your pardon, Arundhati!

ARUNDHATI ROY: Their function... (Laughs) So if their whole purpose is to push through unequal, unfair economic trade, then we don't want them. But the point is, as much... It's, of course, a great thing to have multilateral trade agreements, but not if they're unfair. It's better not to have them if they're going to be unfair. It's better not to have them if what they oversee is America taxing a tailor from Bangladesh 20 times more than a garment made by a tailor in Paris or in London, you know? So the point is that these kind of inequalities just drive a deep wedge between the rich and the poor in the world, which is why, today, you have corporations that are richer than most countries. And it's not an accident of fate that this is happening. It's a system that's in place that must be challenged.

ANDREW DENTON: When President Bush said, "You're either with us or you're with the terrorists," what did you see as your options?

ARUNDHATI ROY: I remember when I wrote my essay called 'The Algebra of Infinite Justice', and, you know, I said this is not a choice that the people of the world have to or ought to be made to make, you know, because we don't have to choose between a malevolent Mickey Mouse and the mad mullahs.

Today, if you look at the campaign that the Republicans are running in America, they are really saying, "If you don't vote for us, there'll be another terrorist attack." And they are creating a situation in which the brutality of what they do can only be matched by the insane brutality of an opposition, and all reasonable people are coopted, you know?

If you look at what is happening in, say, Iraq, today, under the occupation, they are creating a situation in which the only people who are crazy enough to oppose them are people who normal people wouldn't want to really align themselves with. So, by default, you're with "us", as in Bush and company.

You know, it's a very, very dangerous business and I think one of the things I keep talking about is the fact that we must break that, we must mount our own resistance. We don't have to support the Madhi army, but we have to become the Iraqi resistance. We can't just keep quiet and say, you know, "We don't like either side and we're just so pristine and wonderful and our principles are all in order," because everything is being usurped while we say that.

ANDREW DENTON: How to break that cycle, though, which as you say is a vicious one? 10 million people marched around the world to stop the war in Iraq and it didn't stay the hand of war for even a day. Is Gandhi's non-violence still appropriate or is a different response now necessary?

ARUNDHATI ROY: The fact that 15 million people marched on February...sorry, 10 million people marched on February 15, was a wonderful thing. But if we think that by marching on a weekend we're going to stop a war which is necessary to fuel the machine on which the world works today... It needs that oil. And we can't expect to march on a weekend and expect that, "Oh, my goodness, we marched, we went all of Saturday from 10:00 to 4:00 and still the war didn't stop." That's an absurd assumption to make.

I think what we do need to do is to understand that nobody can actually...no country, not even the whole of Europe together, can actually match or oppose American military power, but certainly the economic outposts of empire are vulnerable. Even...I really feel it's important to shut down the corporations that have taken over and raped Iraq and are doing it now. I think this is what activists and resistance movements need to do - to understand that Iraq is engaging the front lines of empire, and we have to, you know...we have to throw our weight behind the resistance.

ANDREW DENTON: Your critics would say that you're naive, an appeaser, anti-progress, anti-American. How do you plead?

ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, the anti-American thing is...you know, it's a bit old hat now because I've just come back from America where I spoke at a number of places, and I'm actually in awe of the fact that the American dissent is in very good shape. I really admire American people who have been the staunchest critics of their own government.

I was in New York on the 29th of last month. 500,000 people marched against the Republican convention. You know, if you stood in a place it took six hours for the march to walk past. That was such a phenomenal display. So it's a bit silly, but strategic for them, to say I'm anti-American, you know?

But I think, on the other hand, it's important for those of us who come from countries that call themselves democracies, you know, whether it's Australia, whether it's America or England, even India - even though I don't know that India's a democracy, but still, it is in ways - but I think that it's important for us to understand that we are responsible for the acts of our governments. If John Howard comes to power in Australia, the people of Australia are responsible for his actions - they are actually confirming and affirming that he took part in the war against Iraq. They are affirming his policies against refugees and Aboriginals and everything. So we can't always separate ourselves from our governments in democracies.

People in Iraq, people in Afghanistan, I don't think it's fair to hold them responsible for the actions of Saddam Hussein or the Taliban, as the coalition is doing, you know, killing them in their hundreds of thousands. So that, I think, is something we need to think about.

ANDREW DENTON: Arundhati, we're just about out of satellite. My last question, which is to do with the rigour of language, and it's your language - you say that a that a new world is not only possible, it's actually on its way, and on a quiet day you can hear it breathing. Is the language of hope stronger than the language of fear?

ARUNDHATI ROY: I think where there is a fear, there will... I mean, where there is fear, there'll always be hope. Where there is oppression, it will always be challenged by those of us who will challenge it with greater intensity, you know? So that's why I don't believe that there can ever be peace without justice, you know? The two go together. And there cannot be peace in the world with full-spectrum dominance or, you know, nuclear warfare or any of those things. They won't help, because always there will be people who demand dignity, who demand justice, who demand their rights.

And, you know, that is as much physics as the physics of people who want power and who try to usurp it - it is the physics of those of us who will challenge it, and we'll always be around.

ANDREW DENTON: In the '60s, it was burning draft cards, in the '70s it was burning bras and it was burning effigies. Now I think you're suggesting burning the barcodes.

Arundhati Roy, when you come to Australia I hope you enjoy your time here. It's been a pleasure talking to you.

ARUNDHATI ROY: Thanks, Andrew.

No comments:

Post a Comment